Now two outstanding examples of high-fashion exhibitions, mounted collaboratively, can be seen at major New York museums in different boroughs. “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” is the annual, widely anticipated extravaganza of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even if this year’s version doesn’t quite live up to its title, it is loaded with evening attire that ranges in date from the late Gilded Age to midcentury Hollywood. One of the best and most visually striking in the Costume Institute’s history, the show is enhanced by seductive hand-painted murals designed by Nathan Crowley and the extravagant wigs of Julien d’Ys.
Which brings us to the often delirious yet discomforting unreality of most museum exhibitions devoted to high fashion. These shows almost invariably chronicle the lifestyles and shifting, usually unattainable ideals of femininity of the leisure class. But they also reflect larger, historical trends in taste, mores and wealth, while encapsulating the technical innovations, artistic sensibilities and fantasies that perpetually trickle down to the less expensive, more utilitarian designs most women wear.
“American Woman,” which has been organized by Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute, benefits from, and celebrates, the exponential expansion of the institute’s holdings in one fell swoop in January 2009. That was when the Met took over the care and storage of a larger, older collection of fashion belonging to the Brooklyn Museum, which could not afford to maintain it.
On its side, the Brooklyn Museum has assembled “American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection” as a form of proud semi-farewell — semi because the transfer agreement allows the museum to borrow back works from its former collection. The show, composed entirely of pieces from the Brooklyn collection, is rife with what are justifiably being called “masterworks,” which have not been exhibited for decades, if ever. The collection includes deep holdings (even drawings) of genuine geniuses like the French shoe designer Steven Arpad and especially the inimitable Charles James, whose astounding “Diamond” evening dress is one of the show’s high points. But it is also rich in accessories, idiosyncrasies and objects steeped in history.
Here you’ll find the hat fashioned from green velvet drapes and heavy gold fringe by the impoverished post-war Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) in “Gone With the Wind.” Another “Rarity” — as the labels designate such pieces — is the black silk twill gown that Queen Victoria wore in a famous 1896 family photograph, reproduced here. It shows her with her son, grandson and great-grandson, the future Kings Edward VII, George V and Edward (VIII) the Brief. Among the dresses once worn by sylphs like Ava Gardner, the art collector Dominique de Menil or the socialite and major Charles James patron Millicent Rogers, Victoria’s is a shock. The mannequin is so short, wide and top-heavy that you may first think that it is seated. Hers is the only imperfect body in either show.
Also relatively chunky are the credit lines on the ex-Brooklyn ensembles at the Met. They read “Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009.” This is followed by the item’s original Brooklyn credit. For example, “Gift of the estate of Mrs. Arthur F. Schermerhorn, 1957” — this on a House of Worth ball gown from 1900 in the “Heiress” section, where the setting is based on an Astor ballroom in Newport, R.I. Or, in the sportif “Gibson Girl” section, where the wraparound outdoor setting ticks clockwise through the seasons, the label for a riding ensemble by an unknown American designer from around 1896: “Gift of the Princess Viggo in accordance with the wishes of the Misses Hewitt, 1931.” (The Misses Hewitt of the Cooper-Hewitt, to be precise.)
But enough reading. These shows play off each other well because they represent contrasting if not opposing curatorial approaches. The Brooklyn one, which I recommend seeing first, has a wonderful, multilevel clarity. Organized by Jan Glier Reeder, who is in charge of the Brooklyn costume collection at the Met, the show offers pleasures that are learning epiphanies. And its medley of masterworks, though less neatly organized than the Met show, may end up saying more about the “national identity” of the American woman. For one thing, it ventures closer to the present and includes relatively modest postwar designs by Americans like Claire McCardell and Bonnie Cashin. For another, many of the clothes, both early and late, belonged to interesting women.
Next to Victoria’s black gown, for instance, is the elaborate dress worn by Emily Warren Roebling — who oversaw the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband was incapacitated by the bends — for her presentation to the Queen in 1896. And behind that is Mrs. Roebling herself, wearing the dress in a full-length portrait painted by Émile Carolus-Duran, also in 1896.
Yet despite such historical references, the Brooklyn show also offers its garments — seen against white walls — as art objects. The best assert themselves as examples of an über-art that fuses aspects of painting, sculpture, architecture, body art and theater with exquisite craft.
An elaborately tucked and scalloped gown designed by Charles Frederick Worth in the late 1860s for the Empress Eugénie is made entirely of lavender silk taffeta. It looks like a very fancy maquette of itself, or some frothy harbinger of the modernist monochrome.Equally striking, in an almost painterly way, is a Balenciaga dress from 1945 whose bands of black lace and white organza are dotted with paillettes in four sizes.
The artistry of fashion is most alive in a row of nine floor-length ball gowns from the 1940s and ’50s by Charles James. Almost everything about them is dense with artistic thought, from their three-dimensional derring-do and play of matte and satiny fabrics, to their polymorphous eroticism and extremely refined and sometimes startling segmenting of garment and thus body.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the “Diamond” evening dress of 1957 (a gift from Mrs. de Menil). A black velvet line curves across the front of the dress at the waist, dividing an ivory bodice from a beige skirt, and then wraps around on either side to plunge steeply to the back of the knees in a V. Below, a short beige train flares toward the ground in an inverted V. Above, the back of the dress is a field of ivory bisected by a beige panel, whose streamlined bowling-pin silhouette is an abstraction of the female form, designed to adorn one.
Then there is the sophisticated perverseness of the adjacent “Butterfly” dress of 1955 — weighing 18 pounds, mostly aubergine tulle — whose wedge-shaped train descends from a pair of silvery satin curves just below the waist. While plenty butterflylike, these also iterate the upper arcs of the wearer’s backside. On the wall opposite these dresses, a dozen James sketches revert back to a more abstract turn of mind.
Compared with the Brooklyn Museum’s presentation, the Met show is one long, atmospheric swoon. Its more than 80 gowns and ensembles are cosseted in circular galleries, where the murals evoke period settings. For the bohemians of the 1910s we get a fabulous re-creation of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s studio; for the flappers in the ’20s, a skyscraper nocturne based on the paintings of Tamara de Lempicka.
These scenes unfold almost entirely at night, with breaks for those athletic Gibson Girls, marching Suffragettes, World War I uniforms and a few other instances of daywear. But after taking in the theatrical ensembles and glamorous backgrounds, you begin to focus on the details. The mostly beaded and embroidered motifs on the cascading skirts of the evening gowns by Worth in the Astor ballroom are all derived or distilled from nature. The fabrics of the columnar chemise gowns by Poiret, Callot Soeurs and Liberty & Company, worn by the bohemian guests in Tiffany’s studio, are incredibly but discreetly rich in color, texture and pattern; most of the dozen shoes strapped into a large, specially designed traveling trunk are embroidered. (The trunk in this setting is an odd but engrossing touch.)
In the “Flapper” room, the chemise persists, but hemlines rise precipitously. Thin silks and chiffons prevail, encrusted with beads and sequins, usually in geometric patterns that suggest architectural details. The patterns on a French dress from 1925 evoke the Chrysler Building, not yet built.
The gowns in the Hollywood section (“Screen Sirens: the 1930s”) are by Madame Grès, Vionnet and Lanvin, as well as James. They are marvelous, but they get very distracting competition from the snippets of famous sirens on film — Katharine Hepburn, Lena Horne, Josephine Baker, Rita Hayworth and Garbo. Seeing well-dressed women in action tends to makes clothes on mannequins look a bit sad.
The final circular gallery is an animated mosaic of pictures of scores of American women, spanning most of the 20th century. It cuts through divisions of class and race the way the exhibition does not, and is so transfixing that it may cause serious traffic problems. But it has a caffeinating effect, and points the mind back toward reality and the city outside.